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Our School Drum: Building Community and Relationships

Jenny Pert, Melissa Ewanchuck, Michael Boos

Driving down the TransCanada Highway from Thunder Bay to Sioux Lookout, Jenny Pert, a native language teacher at Sioux Mountain Public School, was approaching Ignace when she spotted a group of hunters skinning a moose. She stopped and told them she wanted to make a school drum and wondered if she could use their moose hide. Jenny’s skills of persuasion and the hunters’ act of generosity resulted in a gift of not just one, but two moose hides!

Back at school Jenny presented the idea of creating a school drum to the school staff. The timing could not have been better. ETFO had selected Sioux Mountain Public School to participate in the “Danny Schools” project. It provided funds and teacher release time to help schools develop and implement strategies to strengthen relationships in the school community and ultimately improve student learning.

Jenny and the “Danny” school team began their work by offering tobacco to many people in the community and asking local elders and community members for guidance in treating the moose hides and making a large school drum. Local elders showed Jenny and her students how native peoples traditionally scraped the fleshy side of the moose hide and used ashes to create lye to loosen the coarse hair on the other side of the hide. During the fall, Elder Ralph Johnson worked with students in all of Jenny’s native language classes at Sioux Mountain to model and share the teachings with them.

With the scraping process still unfinished , the colder temperatures of the approaching winter presented new challenges. Darren Lentz, a teacher at Queen Elizabeth High School, showed the students how to scrape the frozen hair from the hide. The students showed pride and determination as they worked tirelessly, knowing they were getting closer to having their drum.

With the raw hide finished, Jenny again offered tobacco to a community Anishnaabe member, Victor Lyon, and asked him to help build the drum. Victor accepted and began building the drum while teaching students how to make individual drum sticks. The drum was completed in four days. When Victor said the drum was ready to be feasted, a pow wow was planned. Invitations went out quickly to the community, while the school staff worked with students in every classroom to prepare hundreds of handmade gifts — including beautifully painted feathers — for the drum celebration.

The day of the pow wow was truly an historic event in Sioux Mountain.

As the beating of the drums began, and dancers wearing fancy shawls and jingle dresses came into the gymnasium for the Grand Entry, there were many who fought back tears of joy. It was an exciting moment as the following comments show:

  • “I was amazed at how many people showed up at the ceremony and pow wow… It was a very emotional time for me… I was overwhelmed with joy and happiness when we played the Grand Entry song.” ( Elder Victor Lyon)
  • “It’s great to see the public school system honour and celebrate Aboriginal culture. The look of pride and the display of humility from the Aboriginal students as they danced in to the Grand Entry song was moving. This is an exciting time to be an Aboriginal student in the public school system.” ( Eleanor Skead, Aboriginal advisor for the Keewatin-Patricia DSB )

The drum has had a far-reaching impact on our school, greater perhaps than any of us could have imagined. It has strengthened relationships in our school community:

“It is a comfortable feeling to have this wonderful gift in the school. The drum gives our staff and students the opportunity to learn more about themselves and to understand their path as they walk on the Mother Earth.” ( Teacher at Sioux Mountain)

When asked about the impact of the drum on their own lives, many of our students expressed pride in their culture, while others said the drum has helped them cope with their personal challenges. A grade 7 student said that the drum “helps you heal your problems and all of the difficulties in your life that you’ve been through.” A grade 6 student said: “I feel great because lots of stuff has been going on at home, bad stuff. Now, since drumming, there are no more tears at home. I have been asking the drum if it can help me at home and the drum has given me help and everything has changed.”

The sound of the drum continues to be with us every day at our school. Victor Lyon volunteers to drum with our students three days a week, while Jenny and the Intermediate girls gather around the drum for a healing circle at least twice each week. The drum is also an integral part of every native language class. It is not uncommon to see students in Jenny’s classes gathered around the drum, drumming, dancing or singing the “Eagle Song.”

“Since our school drum has arrived, and we have been using it, I have seen our children unite. I have seen respect come into our native language room and spread out into the school. I have witnessed individual healing around the drum. I have heard children teaching other children about the drum and how to be loving to it and others.” ( Teacher at Sioux Mountain)

From the principal’s window the other day, we could see three boys in the kindergarten playground area who had taken a box and tipped it upside down on the ground. They each had a stick in one hand and were drumming on the box. Their faces bore an expression of real pride as they managed to keep the beat together. The heartbeat of the Mother Earth and the pride among our students are alive and well at Sioux Mountain Public School.

Gichi Miigwech to the Sioux Mountain Public School Community and to the ETFO Poverty and Education Project.

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